Putting the whole lead in drinking water thing into perspective: a water professional weighs in - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Putting the whole lead in drinking water thing into perspective: a water professional weighs in

This blog is part of a series exploring solutions to the complicated issue of lead in drinking water. MPC staff have invited select guest authors to contribute. The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely of the guest author.

Water Utilities in Illinois agree that reducing or eliminating lead in drinking water is important.

Water Utilities in Illinois agree that reducing or eliminating lead in drinking water is important. To accomplish this goal, many water utilities and communities in Illinois such as Evanston, Springfield, Rockford, Elgin and Aurora (to name just a few), either have or are creating programs to replace water service lines made of lead which can be a contributor to elevated lead levels in drinking water.

 Water Facts You Should Know

  • The water delivered to your home from the water treatment plant does not contain lead. Lead exposure can occur when water is allowed to remain in contact with plumbing fixtures or water service lines containing lead for extended periods of time (six hours or more). Corrosive water can dissolve lead from these pipes and fixtures which is why water utilities are required to provide corrosion control treatment when the water chemistry dictates the need.
  • When sampling for lead, drinking water must be allowed to sit stagnant in the pipes for at least six hours to allow contact time with pipes and fixtures. This generates what could be considered a “worst case” sample result. However, most people do not consume water that has been stagnant in the pipes for extended periods, they flush toilets, take showers and other routine activities that use water which minimizes the amount of time water remains in contact with pipes and fixtures and results in reduced lead exposure.

A recent study conducted by the City of Elgin estimates they will have to spend more than $114 million dollars to replace the 11,000 lead service lines in their community.

Replacing every lead service line in Illinois is a worthy goal, however it does not guarantee the lead problem will be solved: Lead also exists in plumbing fixtures (faucets, shower heads, etc.) and paint, which by the Illinois Department of Public Health’s own admission is still the primary source of lead exposure to children. Lead also exists in the environment resulting from our past use of leaded gasoline for many decades.

Replacing lead water service lines will cost money, lots of money. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the cost to replace lead service lines nationally at between $16 billion and $80 billion. A recent study conducted by the City of Elgin estimates they will have to spend more than $114 million dollars to replace the 11,000 lead service lines in their community. To pay for this program, it is estimated they will have to increase their water rates by as much as 60% for the next 20 years. These costs will be borne by you, the water customers.

To compound matters, Illinois, along with almost every other state in the country, is facing an aging infrastructure problem. According to the American Water Works Association, more than 1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years needs to be invested in drinking water infrastructure to maintain a safe and appropriate level of water service. This will also be paid for by water customers.

Although these numbers are significant, they don't mean we shouldn’t begin the process of getting the lead out. However, we need to understand it’s going to take time and careful planning. It’s also going to require a partnership between water utilities and water customers. Since the pipes in question are partially on private property, water utilities will need the cooperation of property owners to replace the entire lead service line.

There is also no single solution. Communities will need to develop a “toolbox” approach to correcting the problem. Some may increase water rates and pay for the entire replacement, while others may choose to share the cost with those affected. Some communities may offer repayment plans for homeowners to cover their costs, while others may not have the financial resources to afford loan programs.

Things You Can Do to Minimize Your Risks of Lead Exposure in Water

In the meantime, there are some things you can do to minimize your risk of exposure to lead.

  • Contact your water utility and ask them to help you determine if you have a water service line made of lead. They will be able to describe how you can make that determination yourself, or send someone to your home to assist you.
  • Ask your water utility if they would test the water in your home for lead. Many utilities will provide this service free of charge, while others may pass the cost to you, which is usually less than $20.
  • Use only cold water for cooking and drinking and run that water for a couple of minutes (until you feel a temperature change) prior to use. This will ensure you are using water that has not remained in contact with pipes and fixtures for an extended period of time.
  • If you find you do have a lead service line and wish to replace it, contact your water utility to ascertain your options for replacing the line.

These recommendations are things property owners can implement rather quickly to learn and take action if they have a lead in drinking water issue. Water utilities are very willing to work with customers to resolve concerns they may have about their water, as they understand the technical, health and emotional issues related to lead in drinking water. We are working diligently with stakeholder groups, public health officials and the Illinois General Assembly to develop programs that are both protective of public health and implementable.

About the Author: John Donahue is the CEO of the North Park (Ill.) Public Water District in Machesney Park, Illinois. He has 38 years of experience in the water industry and is a Past-President of the American Water Works Association. He continues to actively advocate for effective, science-based drinking water legislation and regulation and has twice testified before the U.S. Congress on drinking water issues.  

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